Debacles of a Disabled Scientist.

People are often surprised to learn that nutrition is not a pseudoscience about eating your greens, but is in fact the study of the complex biochemical interactions between nutrients and the human body and how that influences our health. This misunderstanding is only partly explained by the overuse of the term “nutritionist”, which encompasses everything from someone with a 2-day course from a dodgy website to someone with a PhD and lifetime of experience in nutrition. When I persuade someone to be honest with me about this confusion, they admit that despite the work of all feminists, a typical scientist is still pictured as a man in their minds. Since nutrition is regarded as a woman’s subject, it is therefore not deemed a true science. What is more, once people are aware of the scientific basis of the subject, they remain confused as to how a disabled person like myself could possibly use a laboratory. This is in spite of the fact that one of the most prominent scientists of this day and age was also one of the most disabled people on the globe. It baffles me that after all the publicity surrounding Stephen Hawkins, they made a movie of his life story for crying out loud, people still assume that disability means I can’t do science.

Using a wheelchair in a laboratory is not without its challenges. Trying to drive what is essentially an over-sized go-kart down a narrow passage lined on both sides with precision engineering glassware worth several thousand pounds is an expensive disaster waiting to happen. Similarly, the height of the workbenches would warrant the use of a periscope, and some students are still not entirely used to the soft whine of motors followed by a gliding ponytail, the only thing visible above the benches that signals my arrival. Still, once perched on a lab stool with my wheelchair pushed to one side, these issues are overcome, and since I am unable to walk any substantial distance, I manage to wheedle my way out of doing the washing up too.

Image description: Inside the chemical analysis lab in the School of Food Science & Nutrition. Stands holding a variety of equipment including various flasks, burettes, & pipettes are set up on the work top. Two people in lab coats can be seen working in the background.

Like any normal student I enjoy the chance to have fun, so when my colleagues were using automatic pipettes to determine just how far an ejected pipette tip could be thrown, I did not fail to join in. However, being an abnormal student also gives rise to much hilarity. When using an atomic absorption spectrometer to measure the iron and calcium content of a cake, we were warned of the dangers of using this piece of machinery, in particular the canister of explosive gas that was used to fuel it.

“If the flame suddenly expands, run,” our lab technician told us. “If it disappears for no reason, run. If the tube running from the canister to the spectrometer catches fire, run…”

I raised my hand; “What if you can’t run?”

The colour drained from the lab technician’s face. Thinking he had offended me, he struggled to find a suitable reply. After leaving a short pause for dramatic effect, I broke into a wide grin, and with relief the technician realised he hadn’t offended me at all, and I was simply and perhaps cruelly making fun of his chosen words.

Similar incidents are not limited to the laboratory alone, for when answering three questions correctly in quick succession during a seminar, my lecturer stated, “You’re on a roll.”

I didn’t even say a word before my lecturer realised his error, turning the colour of beetroot and spluttering an apology before I began to laugh, accompanied by the rest of the packed lecture theatre.

There is no reason why my particular disability should limit my prospects in the field of nutrition. Some people feel that they are too disabled to conduct intricate experiments in a laboratory, and would perhaps feel uncomfortable attempting to do so, but for those who wish to explore science, I hope that you are not limited by the ignorance of others. While there is something to be said for realism, I can’t help wondering how many great scientific discoveries have been missed because people were told that they were incapable because of their disability, gender, race, or sexuality.

My Superpower.

Why Harry Potter insists on using a special cloak to become invisible is beyond me, because what he really needs is a wheelchair. I have had such an enormous number of incidents involving people stepping over my legs or walking straight into the wheelchair, as well as having heavy doors shut in my face, that invisibility can be the only logical explanation.

One common occurrence for wheelchair users is something we like to call “flat-head syndrome”. This occurs when a wheelchair user is accompanied by an adult whose legs work and people address questions about the wheelchair user to the functioning human, including “What is wrong with her?” and “Does she want a drink?”. I like to surprise people by answering the question with some unintelligible medical jargon and leave them dumb-founded while I wander away to do something more intelligent. This event isn’t even limited to when I am with a carer, and has been seen by friends, family, and my other half. In particular, my other half receives looks of wonder that he is such a hero for dating a disabled woman. The reality is that I’m blonde and I have big boobs, and actually, we’re quite fond of each other.

Another frequent event happens when people are using their phones, usually while looking down at the screen held out slightly in front of them, but also when using phones for their original purpose. People walk straight into the wheelchair, and then blame me, even when I am travelling down a narrow pavement with the road on one side of me, and steps into shops on the other. Some people become so absorbed by the enchanting box of flickering light that they forget the world around them, and let heavy doors go in front of me, leaving me trying to open them from an angle no door is designed to be opened from.

I do realise that some of you may be reading this on your phones, and of course you’ve probably become completely entranced by the elegant writing style and intricate anecdotes I use.  I take no issue with you doing this, it is quite the complement after all, but please try to take in your surroundings while you walk. The most ironic thing I have ever observed involved someone having to use a wheelchair temporarily after suffering an injury from walking into a wheelchair while using his phone, who then got annoyed at people walking into his wheelchair while using their phones.

If you are out and about and you see someone in a wheelchair, please don’t turn the other way to ignore the blemish on society, or stare gormlessly in their direction which frankly looks terrible and feels incredibly uncomfortable. Instead give them a quick smile, stop to help them if they need it, and then continue on with your day safe in the knowledge that today you made a difference, and you made someone genuinely happy.

All Creatures Great and Small.

Everyone seems to take great pleasure in watching animals react to and mimic a human world, and the way in which they react to disabilities is no less charming. It never ceases to surprise me how unafraid many animals are of the large metal frame full of gliding human, and some of the best reactions have been courtesy of cats and dogs.

In my first year of university, on a warm day towards the end of April, I decided to go to the local park as a short break from my exam revision. Naturally the park was full of dogs of all kinds, but there was one Labrador puppy taken straight from an Andrex advert that stole my heart. He was very interested in what, the owner told me, was his first ever encounter with a wheelchair, so I stopped to let him explore the novelty. The excitement must have been overwhelming, because after approximately a minute or so of examining my wheels, he promptly cocked his leg against the back wheel. I have never seen the colour drain from someone’s face as rapidly as the owner’s face did that day; they were mortified. I, however, thought it was hilarious, and was laughing so hard that my diaphragm ached from the effort. The poor puppy looked so self-satisfied that every time I stopped laughing, I had only to look at his face again to be set into another fit of hysterics. I assured the owner that it wasn’t a problem, and had actually made my day, and we continued our separate ways, with my back wheel leaving a faint trail along the dry path.

About 18 months later, I was returning home after a visit to the pharmacy to find the path obstructed by a huge dog that looked like a cross between a Saint Bernard and a husky. I bent down to fuss the dog, who was tethered to a post while the owner collected his own prescriptions, in an attempt to gently move the dog from my path. What I hadn’t realised was that this dog was still a puppy, and in her excited she jumped up, placing her front paws on my lap, and putting most of her weight on my hips. Within a second of this happening the owner came rushing out of the pharmacy yelling;

“Zara, not the disabled girl, oh god not the disabled girl, down Zara, down!”

I, of course, was thoroughly amused, and after reassuring the owner that I was perfectly alright and that Zara hadn’t hurt me, we managed to move her from my path and I continued home.

On the way home from the pharmacy, I travel down a quiet road set on a hill, which is guarded by a cat called Dom. Dom is a black and white short-haired moggy, who spends most of his time sitting in people’s gardens, and chasing birds. Strangely, he seems to be attracted to the sound of the motors on my powered wheelchair, and whenever I travel down this road, I am soon accompanied by Dom, who trots down the pavement on my right side in a scene that makes even the toughest Bradfordians melt.

Image description: Dom is a male black-and-white short-haired moggy. In this picture he is sat on a garden wall under a tree, looking directly at the camera. He's leaning a little to the left.

I often marvel at the ability of animals to overlook disabilities and see the organism underneath, something which some human beings often struggle with. They don’t appear to view the wheelchair as something to be afraid of, and actually seem to like it, which flies in the face of expectation. Perhaps taking a more animalistic view of the world would allow us to appreciate the really important things; food, shelter, and good company.